The storm broke a river dam in California, hundreds of people were evacuated
WATSONVILLE, Calif. (AP) — A Northern California farming community known for its strawberry crop was forced to evacuate early Saturday after a dam on the Pajara River was breached by the floodwaters of a new atmospheric river that hit the state.
In Monterey County on the Central Coast, more than 8,500 people were under evacuation orders and warnings Saturday, including about 1,700 residents – many of them Latino – from the unincorporated community of Pajara.
Officials said the breach in the Pakhara River dam is about 100 feet (30.48 meters) wide. Crews went door-to-door Friday afternoon to urge residents to stay out of the rain, but some remained and had to be pulled from floodwaters Saturday.
More than 50 people were rescued during the night. One video showed a Guardsman helping the driver out of the car, which was waist-deep in water.
“We hoped to avoid and prevent this situation, but the worst-case scenario happened: the Pahara River overflowed and the dam broke at about midnight,” – wrote Luis Alekhachairman of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, on Twitter.
Alekha called a flood “enormous,” saying the damage would take months to repair.
The Pajara River separates Santa Cruz and Monterey counties in the area that flooded Saturday.
Officials were working along the levee in hopes of strengthening it when it was breached around midnight Friday into Saturday. Crews began repairing the dam at dawn Saturday as residents slept in evacuation centers.
Pahara Valley is a coastal agricultural area known for growing strawberries, apples, cauliflower, broccoli and artichokes. The region is home to national brands such as Driscoll’s Strawberries and Martinelli’s.
In 1995, the dams of the Pajara River burst, submerging 2,500 acres (1,011 hectares) of farmland and the community of Pajara. Two people died and the flood caused almost $100 million in damage. A state law passed last year provided state funds for the dam project. Its construction was planned to start in 2024.
This week’s storm was the state’s 10th atmospheric river of the winter, storms that brought massive amounts of rain and snow to the state and helped ease a three-year drought. The state’s reservoirs, which had dropped to staggeringly low levels, are now well above average for this time of year, prompting state officials to release water from dams to help with flood control and make room for more rain.
Californians were battling torrential rains and rising water levels across the state on Saturday. In Tulare County, the sheriff ordered residents living near the Tule River to evacuate, and people near Poso Creek in Kern County were under an evacuation advisory. National Weather Service meteorologists have issued flash flood warnings and advisories, asking motorists to stay off flooded roads.
In recent weeks, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom declared states of emergency in 34 counties, and the Biden administration approved a presidential disaster declaration for some on Friday morning, which will bring more federal aid.
The atmospheric river, known as the “Pineapple Express” because it brought warm subtropical moisture across the Pacific Ocean from under Hawaii, was melting the lower parts of the vast snowpack built up in the California mountains.
Snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which provides about a third of the state’s water supplies, is more than 180% of its April 1 average, when it historically peaked. Officials said 32 inches (81 centimeters) of snow had fallen by Saturday morning at Mount Rose Ski Resort on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada.
The high-elevation snowpack is so large that it was expected to absorb rain, but snow below 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) could begin to melt, potentially contributing to flooding, forecasters said.
State transportation officials said Friday that they cleared enough snow from the roads in February to fill the famous Rose Bowl 100 times.
Lake Oroville, one of the state’s most important reservoirs and home to the nation’s tallest dam, has so much water that officials on Friday opened the dam’s spillways for the first time since April 2019. The water in the reservoir has risen 180 feet (54.8 meters) since December 1. Of the state’s 17 major reservoirs, seven are still below this year’s historic averages.
State water managers also wrestled with how best to use the storms to help emerge from the severe drought. On Friday, Newsom signed an executive order that makes it easier for farmers and water agencies to use floodwaters to recharge underground aquifers. Groundwater supplies an average of about 41% of the state’s supplies each year. But in recent years, many of these underground pools have been overworked.
Forecasters warned that travel to the mountains could be difficult or impossible during the latest storm. At higher elevations, the storm is forecast to dump up to 8 feet (2.4 meters) of heavy snow over several days.
Another atmospheric river is already in the forecast for the beginning of next week. State climatologist Michael Anderson said a third and possibly a fourth is forming over the Pacific Ocean.
Anderson said California appeared to be “on its way to a fourth year of drought” before the early winter series of storms. “Now we are in a completely different state,” he added.